Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in The Winter's Tale - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ganymedes and Kings: Staging Male Homosexual Desire in The Winter's Tale

Nora Johnson, Swarthmore College

When historians discuss the relation between homosexual practice and homosexual identity in England before the eighteenth century, they often note that male same-sex behaviors coincided with neither a set of psychosocial characteristics nor a clear sexual preference. Alan Bray, for instance, describes satirical portrayals of the courtier who engaged in sodomy, arguing that these portrayals were striking from a twentieth-century perspective because of their failure to represent a specifically homosexual identity: "on this point [the satirists] are remarkably consistent: the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his 'catamite' on the other."1 Following, as he says, "broadly" in the traditions of Mary Mcintosh, Jeffrey Weeks, and Michael Foucault, Bray argues that representations of sodomy before the late-seventeenth century reveal the historical contingency of the modern homosexual. He cites Donne's first Satire, for example, which accuses one man-about-town of enjoying the "nakedness and bareness" of a "plump muddy whore or prostitute boy," and he notes that Johnson's Sir Voluptuous Beast makes his wife listen to tales about his sexual exploits, recounting to her "the motions of each petticoat / And how his Ganymede moved and how his goat."2

The evidence that Bray culls from sources other than satire is equally telling and equally resistant to identifying an exclusively homosexual "type." He describes the reputation of Sir Anthony Ashley, one of James I's courtiers known for his love of boys, who was also known to be a married man and the father of a daughter. He similarly reports Lucy Hutchinson's description of court life under James:

The face of the Court was much changed in the change of the king, for King Charles was temperate, chaste, and serious; so that the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court grew out of fashion and the nobility and courtiers, who did not quite abandon their debaucheries, yet so reverenced the king as to retire into corners to practice them.3

What emerges from Bray's study is more than simply the absence of what twentieth-century historians would call "homosexuality." These accounts suggest that homosexual practice was part of an aristocratic sexual esthetic, a "fashion," in which the courtier sampled at will from an array of erotic practices, none of which could impose itself upon him as a rigid identity. Even Ashley's apparent preference for boys seems to have been compatible with his role as a husband and father. To reiterate the point that has become associated especially with the work of Foucault, sodomy in early modern England is an act, not an identity.

Certainly homosexual desire as imagined by James himself seems to have involved no sense of sexual nature. On the contrary, his letters to his favorite George Villiers enact almost an escape from identity, a sense that one of the pleasures of illicit sexuality was its license to undo the categories of self-definition. James addresses one such letter to "My only sweet and dear child," for instance, and he prays

That we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow's life without you. And so god bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.4

James thinks of this relationship as if it were a marriage in which both partners are wives at the same time that James is father and husband and Villiers is child and wife. Far from being identified by his desire for another man, James imagines homoeroticism as an undoing of identity itself. In fact, James's words to Villiers resonate strongly with Bray's contention, developed further by Jonathan Goldberg, that sodomy in this period belongs not so much to a system of sexual taxonomy as to a system of unintelligibility, a social order in which sexual contact between men signifies only when it can be associated with chaos, anarchy, heresy, or sorcery.5 In this reading, the scandal James risks is not a revelation of personal identity so much as an unleashing of ideological forces that could threaten to undo his own kingship.

Neither James nor the early modern courtier who employs a ganymede, then, is a homosexual in any modern sense of the word. But what are we to assume about the ganymede or catamite himself? The terms in which we are accustomed to explaining the invention of sexual identity—the molly house subcultures in Bray's account, the discursive subject in Foucault's analysis—are inadequate to explain the status of the passive "boy" whose presence gurantees homoerotic content in the accounts of debauchery mentioned above. The ganymede is emphatically not the homosexual subject Foucault teaches us to associate with modernity; among other disqualifying factors, his participation in the homoerotic is taken to be a function of his youth, rather than some expression of essence or nature. In some accounts the ganymede himself desires a woman, while an adult male desires him. But the early modern representations I will examine below suggest that the ganymede's role as an object of homosexual desire extends beyond mere passivity in important ways, that he is imagined as intrinsically fit to be such an object, even, at times, in spite of his own professed desires. Moreover, although we know little or nothing about the relation between actual boys and literary representations of ganymedes, the employment of boys as erotic objects in early modern theater makes the ganymede an integral part of a theater company's reputation. In this light, the eroticized boy is more than a literary strategy for representing aristocratic sexual license. Because The Winter's Tale is centrally concerned, in my reading, with legitimating theatrical practice, its meditations on boyhood similarly become more than nostalgia for the lost past of the two kings whose relationship dominates the play. Representing boyhood becomes instead a way of negotiating the homoerotic, both for Leontes and Polixenes and for the institution of theater itself. In both cases, the reputation for sodomy means more than "acts."

I will argue, then, that even in the absence of a totalizing rhetoric of homosexual identity, the ganymede's participation in the homoerotic identifies him powerfully, so much so that his presence onstage works to stigmatize the theatrical profession. Such an argument is offered not to counter the notion that homosexuality is a historically contingent construct; especially as formulated by Foucault, that insight has powerfully altered perceptions both of sexuality and of early modern Europe. Instead, I want to add this study to the growing body of work that moves beyond the potential reductiveness of a Foucaultian paradigm.6 We can surely emphasize the radical newness of hpmosexuality "as we know it" without ignoring the multiple and complex ways that sodomy could interact With notions of self before the modern era. As Gregory Bredbeck argues,

if [essentialist critics begin] with the assumption that we can trace an atemporal conception of homosexuality throughout history, the other alternative has been to say that because we cannot trace this particular concept through history, nothing can be traced. In each instance "the homosexual" is essentialized as the absolute standard of adjudication. "It" is what we must find if we are to find anything at all.7

This essay explores what might be traced, and examines the interactions between theatrical self-consciousness and illicit desire in The Winter's Tale,


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ganymedes were, of course, not the only group of individuals to be categorized by their participation in sexual acts. On the contrary, the typecasting of women is a familiar part of the early modern sexual terrain, and one that Foucault more or less ignores. One of the factors that makes women such fascinating additions to the sexual taxonomy of this period, though, and that makes them important for a discussion of ganymedes is their paradoxical relation to sexual subjectivity. Women could be characterized absolutely by their sexual acts, without really being imagined to possess agency, or even desire.

Early modern women were sometimes represented as a kind of sexual fixed point in an otherwise chaotic staging of eroticized identities. When Ben Johnson wants to portray debauchery at its worst, for instance, he has his master cozener Volpone engage in an elaborate fantasy of sexual license. "Inviting" the chaste and married Celia to be his mistress, Volpone promises her participation in an extended erotic stage play:

my dwarfe shall dance,
My eunuch sing, my foole make vp the antique.
Whil'st, we, in changed shapes, act Ovids tales,
Thou, like Evropa now, and I like Iove,
Then I like Mars, and thou like Erycine.

. . . . .

Then will I have thee in more moderne formes,

. . . . .

And I will meet thee, in as many shapes:

It is a mark of Celia's perfect adherence to the role of the virtuous woman that she refuses to participate in Volpone's theatrical production, that she maintains her personal integrity by declining to play the adulterous role that both her husband and her would-be lover have scripted for her. In spite of the bewildering transformations of the men around her (her husband reverses in minutes his initial decision to lock his wife up in a chastity belt, deciding instead to prostitute her in hopes of winning Volpone's money; Volpone himself leaps up from his pretended deathbed to inform her that he had appeared just the day before as a mountebank at her window), Celia remains constant to her own and her husband's honor. In fact, her character requires no development beyond the demonstration that she will never swerve from the course of chastity.

To repeat a point made often by feminist critics, a reputation for participating in or resisting participation in a particular sexual act had the power to characterize a woman absolutely—onstage, at least—in the English Renaissance.9 For all that Jonson apparently delights in the possibilities of the ever-changing theatrical self, made manifest in the play's nearly endless recourse to disguise and deception, Volpone also exploits the notion of a woman's constancy, the possibility that a woman's sexual fidelity and, by extension, her infidelity, could stand for everything about her. Such a notion is possible, of course, only when women are considered as objects of greater or lesser use to the system of family and marriage, only in an essentially male erotic economy. To the Volpone who stages a theater of erotic pleasure, Celia matters because she either will or will not take up the adulterous part assigned her. Moreover, the conjunction of theatricality and sexuality in an endless exchange of erotic roles, so highly prized by Volpone, depends implicitly upon Celia's unwillingness to play those roles. Her absolute stillness and chastity make her appealing as a sexual object, after all, at the same time that her resistance to Volpone's role-playing provides him with a kind of foil for his sexual improvisations. The erotic fluidity of the self that characterizes Volpone's fantasy includes the deployment of a fixed sexual self, a feminine locus to which sexuality can attach as an identity, rather than a masculine escape from identity through sexual play. Celia inhabits this identity not so much because of her own desires as because of her perfect adherence to the desire of her husband.

I mention Celia here because I want to make the case that the ganymede, the effeminate boy who was stereotypically the object of male homosexual desire in early modern England, was similarly imagined to be defined by his sexual availability to mature men and similarly deployed as a locus of sexuality's power to stigmatize or characterize. When the dangerously powerful male favorite Gaveston plans to entertain his king in Marlowe's Edward II, for instance, he gives elaborate stage directions:


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(Shakespearean Criticism)

I am drawn to this depiction of theater—as place in which sexual determinism negotiates with courtly erotic play—in part because it accords with my sense of late-Shakespearean romance. The romances seem to me preoccupied with two of the more prominent features of antitheatrical discourse: the suggestion that stage practice is inherently associated with illicit sexuality and the suggestion that play acting is an assault upon the stability of the individual self. Using the example of The Winter's Tale, I want to argue that the romances locate theatrical practice in close relation to illicit desire, acknowledging sodomy as a characteristic mode of being for the players and playwrights implicated in theatrical...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The early scenes of The Winter's Tale enforce an anxious distinction between boys and men, letting boys stand in for the scandal of theatrical practice. Included in that effort is an attempt to use Hermione as a sign both of the distance between Leontes and Polixenes and of the loves they bear one another.* The shared fantasy that she is impure suggests that the easy version of that story is inadequate, that desire and the implicit destabilization of identity cannot be dismissed or idealized as the province of boys. In addition, the language Leontes uses to describe that fantasy—as a promiscuous and fertile mental cojoining—resonates profoundly with what I believe to be a central part of the play's...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

I return, finally, to Halperin's discussion of The Symposium in order to clarify the relation between The Winter's Tale's assumption of female procreativity and the problem with which I began this essay: the difference in signifying power between the participation of boys and the participation of men in homosexual and homoerotic acts. Halperin argues that Diotima functions as a mimetic device through which Plato appropriates a putatively "feminine" erotics as the cornerstone of his own teachings, his own articulation of what The Symposium calls "right pederasty." Concerned as she is with the erotics of pedagogy, Diotima aligns herself, in Halperin's account, with the symbolic appropriations of...

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